Theologians and scientists welcome Intelligent Design ban
Senior scientists and theologians are among those who have welcomed Tuesday's landmark decision by a Pennsylvania federal judge that so-called Intelligent Design (ID) has no legitimate place in the science classroom.
In one of the biggest courtroom clashes between evolutionary biology and ëcreationism' since the famous1925 Scopes trial, US District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that Dover Area School Board members violated the American Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on earth may have been produced by an unidentifiable intelligent cause.
The ruling is a major setback for the Christian right, who have been trying to use ID to promote creationism as a legitimate educational alternative to rigorous scientific theory.
Although Intelligent Design proponents last night rushed to condemn the Kitzmiller -v- Dover decision as ëa political ruling', their cause was immediately undermined by the fact that the presiding judge is a Bush appointee, and by the thoroughness of the 139-page ruling.
Not only does it say that Intelligent Design has no scientific basis (a part of the judgement which will be a benchmark in other cases related to ID), it also accuses its advocates of falsification and dishonesty in presenting themselves and their views.
Indeed several ID supporters repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, said the judge.
The Dover verdict was especially damaging for leading Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe of Lehigh University. The ruling observed: '[O]n cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not ëgood enough.''
Among those who testified against ID in Dover was the noted Catholic scholar John F. Haught, Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, and author of ëGod After Darwin? A Theology of Evolution'.
Substantive evidence was given by leading science commentators such as Robert Pennock (Michigan State University) and Wesley Elsberry (information project director for the US National Centre for Science Education) who are - in private life - both theists.
Also instrumental to the case was noted biologist Kenneth Miller (Brown University), who has written ëFinding Darwin's God'. He demonstrated that Intelligent Design is not a testable theory in scientific terms.
Respected theologians in the science-religion debate have frequently denounced ID as a pseudo-scientific camouflage for long-discredited forms of ëGod of the gaps' thought going back to John Ray (1628-1705) and William Paley (1743-1805), who argued for a designer deity.
But they say that public understanding of the issues is hampered by widespread ignorance of both religion and science.
ID proponent Michael Behe, whose Dover testimony was criticised by Judge Jones, argues that 'structures with many complicated, interacting parts' cannot have arisen through evolution because all of the parts of a complex structure (for example the bacterial flagella) had to arise all at once.
However his 'irreducible complexity' contention has failed to convince scientists and mathematicians on their own ground, and also finds no favour with established theological specialists like Ian Barbour (Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology and Society at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota), because it presupposes a false dichotomy between natural causation and divine presence.
Instead Barbour offers 'a theology of nature in which one asks how nature as understood by science is related to the divine as understood from the religious experience of a historical community.'
What one must not do, he says, is to ignore or twist scientific evidence to fit an existing philosophical prejudice about the nature of God - or argue for a ëgod' to fill holes in present knowledge.
Similar approaches are taken by Arthur Peacocke (winner of Le Conte Du Nouy Prize) and John Polkinghorne (former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of The Royal Society), who are respectively seen as liberal and conservative theological thinkers with established scientific pedigrees.
They talk of God not as a deus ex machina who assembled the parts of the universe supernaturally according to a preconceived design, but as transcendent love generating the world in such a way that it generates itself.
To this Anglican view, and in a more guarded way to the position adopted some years ago by the Roman Catholic Church, the accepted theory of evolution is not a threat to theological understanding but a way of enriching it.
A positive evolutionary view is also taken by Anabaptist scholars like Nancey Murphy (ëReconciling Theology and Science: A Radical Reformation Perspective'), and Calvinists such as Howard van Till.
Indeed, while the religious right has embraced ID as the last bastion of creationism, a number of mainstream US evangelicals, who were initially excited about it, now say they find its arguments unconvincing, having been persuaded by scientists at their own institutions and elsewhere.
Adds Jonathan Neal of Purdue University, Indiana, in a recent article: 'The ID movement has tried to frame this debate as Religion versus Science. It is not. The ID debate is between an ID theology that is anti-science and competing theologies that are capable of incorporating scientific knowledge into their theological framework.'
Asks Dr Neal: 'Do we really want to introduce a controversial, anti-science religious [ideology] into our public schools disguised as ëscience?''
The ruling from Pennsylvania, which seeks to maintain the required separation of church and state, gives a resounding ëno' to that question.
But the argument will not go away. In Kansas last month, the board of education voted that students should be taught about alternatives to evolution.
While a Dover appeal was deemed ëunlikely' yesterday, other challenges are probable from the ënew creationists', who have much economic and political muscle.
However anti-IDers are cheered that the substantial attention to scientific issues in the Dover case makes it very difficult for them to claim intellectual credibility.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK religious think-tank Ekklesia, says he is also pleased by the verdict.
'Intelligent Design is basically a variant of creationism in pseudo-scientific clothing,' he comments. 'As such it is an embarrassment to thoughtful Christianity and a threat to good theology as well as scientific integrity.'
Barrow says that the creationist and ID movements have grown in strength in the UK in recent years, and may seek to use the government's new education bill - which encourages private bodies to run state schools - as a way of gaining a further educational foothold.
Back in 2002 Anglican bishops and major scientists wrote to PM Tony Blair to raise concerns about science teaching at Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead, run by a conservative Christian group.
Similarly, the Grace Academy, due to open in Solihull this year, with another to come in Coventry, says it will teach creationism, according to press reports.
'It is extremely important, in the interests of truth, to ensure that we do not go down this route in Britain', says Barrow. 'Creationism and ID should no more be taught in science classrooms than astrology and numerology.'
[Also on Ekklesia: US religious right plans a home-school revolution ; New Christian academy rejects creationism as 'rubbish' ; Creationist school opens ; Faith, science and understanding ]